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Jim Dey is a staff writer for The News-Gazette. His email is jdey@news-gazette.com.

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Springfield Republicans engaged in self-satisfying finger-wagging last week when an analysis of new census numbers showed some of the Democrats’ controversial new legislative districts are widely unequal in size.

“Because the Democrats’ plan unequivocally violates federal law, it is and will be declared void,” Republican legislative leaders said in a statement declaring the new maps “unconstitutional and unlawful.”

“Just as we predicted ...” bragged House Republican Leader Jim Durkin.

“Democratic politicians (who) were led by Gov. Pritzker ignored the voting rights of their own constituents in an attempt to hold absolute power for another decade,” said Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie.

The GOP is making a lot of noise about the constitutional inadequacy of the maps drawn using population estimates instead of more accurate census numbers. It has challenged the maps in federal court, where it is asking that a bipartisan eight-member commission be created to re-draw House and Senate districts to be used in the 2022 elections.

Are they raising legitimate constitutional criticisms? Or is their rhetoric just so much sound and fury signifying wishful thinking?

Vikram Amar, dean of the University of Illinois College of Law, opts for the latter.

“No one thinks the Republicans’ challenge is going anywhere,” said Amar, who has co-authored two online articles analyzing the legal issues with faculty colleague Jason Mazzone.

Republican suspicions were certainly vindicated last week when political analyst Frank Calabrese reported that some new House and Senate districts deviated from population averages by 30 percent.

But Amar said Democrats have two options that could pass legal muster — do nothing at all or do the “right thing” and pass new legislation that revises the problematic legislative districts to make them more equal in population.

Democratic redistricting leaders — state Sens. Elgie Sims and Omar Aquino, both of Chicago — already have indicated they will examine Calabrese’s numbers and, if necessary, make “appropriate changes.” Legislative leaders have scheduled a Tuesday session in Springfield to do just that.

Republicans challenged the new districts because they alleged Democrats wrongfully used population estimates, instead of census numbers, to draw the new maps. Democrats used the estimates because the census numbers were delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, and they needed to meet a June 30 deadline to make certain the GOP had no role in redistricting.

A trial is scheduled for late September before a three-judge federal panel.

Amar said the GOP’s argument will evaporate if Democrats use the census numbers to redraw the maps because their lawsuit contends that Democrats erred when they used estimates.

As some might suspect, there’s a political backstory to the redistricting fight. It’s all about power.

Supermajority House and Senate Democrats aim to keep superminority Republicans a superminority through 2032 by drawing district lines that give their party a permanent advantage.

The GOP lawsuit is a last-ditch effort — a political Hail Mary — to keep that from happening. The GOP argues that the Democrats’ flawed maps mean they failed to meet the Illinois Constitution’s June 30 deadline.

The Democrats’ failure to meet the deadline, Republicans further argue, invokes a constitutional backup plan that requires the creation of an eight-member commission (four Democrats, four Republicans) to draw new maps.

Here’s where the political maneuvering really comes into play. If a commission can’t agree on new maps, a ninth commission member (either a Democrat or a Republican) would be selected in a random drawing.

If a Republican was selected as the ninth member, then superminority Republicans would draw the maps and stave off the Democrats’ planned evisceration of the GOP.

But Amar said that’s political fantasy because Democrats met constitutional requirements by passing their redistricting plan by June 30. Further, he said, only Illinois courts, not federal courts, have the authority to order the creation of the commission contemplated in the Illinois Constitution.

The veteran law professor said that, as a matter of practicality, states like Illinois wait until after the census is complete before engaging in the decennial redistricting process. He said that approach assures compliance with the “one-man, one-vote” requirement established by the U.S. Supreme Court.

But Amar said federal courts have not established that approach as the sole method for constitutionally approved redistricting. As a consequence, using population estimates “may be good enough” to satisfy the law.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-393-8251.

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